11 fossilized dinosaurs returned to Mongolia
A ceremony celebrating the return was held at the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office in Seocho District, southern Seoul, last Friday.
Attendees included Mongolia’s ambassador to Korea, Baasanjav Ganbold, and senior prosecutors representing both countries.
Noting that Korea is not legally obligated to return smuggled fossils, but did so for ethical reasons, Kwon Sun-cheol, head of the prosecution’s International Cooperation Center, said local authorities would use the latest case as a source of “justification to demand other countries to return our cultural assets, as well.”
Among the remains Korea returned are the fossils of a Tarbosaurus bataar, which is related to the Tyrannosaurus rex, and a Protoceratops, a herbivorous dinosaur that was about the size of a domesticated dog. The Tarbosaurus bataar was in its complete form.
Once the fossils undergo a year-long restoration procedure in Mongolia, they will temporarily be brought back to Korea for public exhibition at the Gwacheon National Science Museum in Gyeonggi, according to prosecutors.
The restoration can take longer than a year, said Im Jong-deok, chief of the Cultural Heritage Conservation Science Center under the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, because some of the fossils are in poor condition.
The fossils were discovered by local authorities in June 2015 when a fossil collector, only identified by the surname Yang, was under investigation in a different case for embezzlement. Prosecutors found out Yang had given his Mongolian partners 467 million won ($408,625) for the fossils.
“A lot of Korean cultural assets have been smuggled out of the country to Europe or Japan,” said Kwon, “but it’s very difficult redeeming them because foreign countries normally aren’t obligated to give them back.”
Kwon added that local authorities would soon gather to share their knowledge about cultural asset reclamation.
“Korea’s prosecution has a strong network with its foreign counterparts, and police have an abundance of investigative power. The Cultural Heritage Administration has all the data on stolen cultural assets,” said Kwon. “If the three organizations come together and highlight their core strengths, I think [the government] can redeem our goods.”
On how Mongolia agreed to exhibit the stolen fossils in Korea next year, Kwon, who led the negotiations, said talks have gone back and forth for over a year.
“It didn’t work well at first,” he said. “After confirming the dinosaur fossils [were theirs], Mongolian prosecutors insisted we hand them over. We asked them to let us borrow them for public display, but they refused several times.”
Mongolia eventually gave in, however, as local prosecutors persisted and after Korea promised to keep them in good condition, Kwon said.
A local dealer who requested anonymity said a Tarbosaurus bataar in its complete fossilized from normally costs about 2 billion won ($1.75 million). A Protoceratops can cost up to 200 million won.
BY IM JANG-HYUK, YU GIL-YONG AND MOON HYUN-KYUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]